Hearthstone's Ben Brode on RNG, esports, and Secret Paladin

Best Hearthstone Legendaries Dr Boom

PC Gamer: Do you think there will be a time when there’s a higher skill cap on the game, because the kind of cards that you’ve designed has changed?

BB: I do think that the best players are the ones who can look at a novel scenario and solve it better and faster than everybody else. Kolento is amazing at that. And in fact, if there was no randomness and the game was more like chess, where you could lay out all your cards at the start of the game and know exactly what was coming, memorization would be a much larger component of winning than problem solving. And that’s a problem chess faces, and some of the best chess players in the world have advocated adding some randomization to the starting positions in chess to help solve the problem of it becoming more about memorization and less about problem solving. So, yeah, randomness is a huge component. You have a randomized deck of cards, you don’t know what cards your opponents are playing with, and you draw a random card of every turn. And the ability to look at this new world that just shows up when your card is drawn and figuring out how to play the odds and say “okay, what if I draw this next turn? What if I draw this other thing?”—those things make a big impact. And being able to think about every possible outcome, and analyzing the odds of everything—that’s very difficult, and the best players in the world do that better than everybody else.

PC Gamer: One of the questions that gets asked all the time is “which legendary should I craft ” Do you think players focus too much on the legendary cards they don’t have, when cards like Sludge Belcher, Haunted Creeper, and Death’s Bite have had bigger effects on the metagame than most legendary cards (with the exception of Emperor Thaurissan)?

It’s scary that we have to either shake up the meta up by making more powerful cards or make cards people aren’t excited about.

BB: You know, if you were going to collect a set over the long run, the cards that you will be earning last because you’re opening packs will be legendaries, so if you’re trying to maximize your dust and hope you don’t open too many duplicates legendaries are where you should start crafting cards. Plus they’re really exciting. We try to make sure they have very exciting effects and do crazy things and feel really splashy. So it makes sense that players gravitate towards those and want to have some legendaries in their deck. You’re right though, we don’t necessarily want to make them more powerful than other cards. Your deck shouldn't be 30 legendary cards. Most decks have just a couple legendary cards in them, and so a lot of the cards that are doing work for you in your decks are common, rare, and epic. But every deck has cards that really make it run. Some decks, like Secret Paladin, play one or no legendaries, while other decks—like some of the dragon decks—play a lot. Depending on what deck style you like, legendaries might be the right choice, but sometimes they're not.

PC Gamer: In Reynad’s list of the cards he thought were most overpowered in the TGT set, he said the best cards were situationally strong rather than generically strong in the way that Dr Boom and Piloted Shredder are. Do you feel like you’ve found a different groove when it comes to designing powerful cards?

BB: It’s tricky. In order to shake up the meta we have to make powerful, exciting cards, so that players make new decks and try new things. And we want to do that, we want to shake the meta up, but if we just keep making more and more powerful cards over time, it warps a little bit what Hearthstone is. Right now, for 2 mana you get a 3/2 with an upside, but as things keep getting more powerful you get a 3/3 for 2 mana with an upside, and so it’s scary that we have to either shake up the meta up by making more powerful cards, or make cards people aren’t excited about. A way to handle that that we’re currently looking at is what we call ‘sideways design’, where instead of making cards that are just better, we make cards that are situationally better. If you use this card you have to use dragons, and if you use this card, you have to use mechs—but it doesn’t just increase the overall power. We can only do that for so long though, and we’re looking at other ways that we can solve this core problem of continually adding cards to the game. But yes, sideways design is a way we can mitigate that somewhat.

Dragons Hearthstone The Grand Tournament

PC Gamer: With the addition of Twilight Guardian and Chillmaw is dragon synergy now exactly where you want it to be?

BB: I think so, I’ve been having a ton of fun with dragon decks and I see a lot of players experimenting with those cards as well. I think, yeah, dragons are in an awesome place right now.

PC Gamer: Last time I spoke to Eric Dodds, I felt like extra deck slots had moved from being something that might happen to something that probably would happen. Is it the kind of feature that might just pop up one day in a patch or is it the kind of thing that won’t happen until there’s another expansion?

BB: The core message for deck slots is that it will happen. It is now on the list of ‘to-do’, and not on the ‘should-we-or-should-we-not-do-this’ list. So we are discussing how to do that kind of thing, because there are many options. And I think we want to do it the best way and not just the first way. But I don’t think this is the type of thing that’s like five years away or something.

PC Gamer: With complex Grim Patron turns commonplace, how are you grappling with keeping the animation crisp enough so that the turns don’t get bloated?

The core message for deck slots is that it will happen.

BB: We like to give players the ability to play ahead of the animations, so you can queue up many attacks and card plays. It’s especially difficult with things where new cards are being spawned because they haven’t spawned yet, but you need to be able to see them spawn before you can attack the newly spawned card. But, in general, we try to keep Hearthstone very quick and let you queue up future actions. We like to keep the animations fast, and one of the skills of Hearthstone is figuring out when you need to stop thinking and start acting. And it’s hard, but players who’ve played a lot start to understand the cadence of how much they can get done in the time they have.

PC Gamer: Because I’m salty about narrowly missing legend last season, will you tell me what the highest place you’ve finished on ladder is?

BB: [Laughs] I’m in the same boat as you, I get very close to legend and then I run out of time before the end of the month.

PC Gamer: It’s brutal.

BB: It is.

PC Gamer: Maybe we can make it together this season.

BB: Thankfully we have a team of super high level legend players who are responsible for balance sitting very close to me.

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Tim Clark

With over two decades covering videogames, Tim has been there from the beginning. In his case, that meant playing Elite in 'co-op' on a BBC Micro (one player uses the movement keys, the other shoots) until his parents finally caved and bought an Amstrad CPC 6128. These days, when not steering the good ship PC Gamer, Tim spends his time complaining that all Priest mains in Hearthstone are degenerates and raiding in Destiny 2. He's almost certainly doing one of these right now.